Don't Put Me In, Coach (2 page)

BOOK: Don't Put Me In, Coach
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But most importantly, what makes the experience so nerve-wracking is the fact that there are thousands of people in the stands and it seems like just about every one of them wants to see us make at least one shot, most likely because nothing conveys complete dominance over another team quite like walk-ons scoring. In reality, what we do on the court is completely trivial because nobody really remembers or cares all that much the next day whether or not the walk-ons scored, but it doesn’t matter to us. No matter how many times we do it, each and every game that we play in feels like it’s the Super Bowl and every single person in the building has their eyes locked in on us. And even though it’s probably entirely unwarranted, there truly is an enormous pressure that comes with this.

On this particular day, it seemed like that pressure was getting to me a little bit. That, or it was the trip the day before to the Canadian McDonald’s, where I got a little carried away with my amazement at the concept of a Double Big Mac and ended up eating two of them. Either way, on the day of our first game I found myself fighting a serious battle with my bowels, and judging from the fact that I had spent most of the day on the toilet, I’d say my bowels were winning. I already had some butterflies in my stomach from knowing that I was about to play in my first international basketball game and—because of an injury I suffered the season before—my first basketball game of any kind in over a year. But now I was facing a serious crisis because the butterflies in my stomach had some company in the form of explosive diarrhea.

My stomach got so bad that when the game finally rolled around, I had to excuse myself from my spot on the bench during the first half so I could return to the locker room bathroom and take care of some business. By that time I had spent the better part of the day on the toilet and my bunghole was consequently a little tender, but I really had no choice but to suck it up because the fact
of the matter was that I was going to have to find a way to get ready to play the last few minutes of the game. There was simply no way around it. No matter how much I might have not wanted to go into the game, the bottom line was that I was a walk-on who rarely got any playing time, so I had no choice but to take the opportunity to play whenever I could get it. Plus, it wasn’t like I could turn down my head coach, Thad Matta, when he asked me to check in. That’s because it was understood that a walk-on doing such a thing would require a huge set of brass balls, since it would give the head coach the impression that we really didn’t care about getting better at basketball and weren’t taking our role on the team seriously. In short, despite my digestive problems, I was going to have to play high-level college basketball in front of a few thousand people in less than an hour and there was nothing I could do to prevent it.

As the game reached its final stages, the tension was so thick it seemed tangible, not so much because the outcome of the game hung in the balance—we had at least a 50-point lead—but more because I knew Coach Matta was inevitably going to tell me to check in at any moment. Then, with about three minutes left on the clock and our lead holding steady at around 50 points, it happened. He stood up from his spot at the head of the bench and walked down to the end of the bench I was occupying. “You ready to go in?” he asked. I momentarily froze.

I took a deep breath, looked up at him, and said:

“Nah, I’m good.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I couldn’t believe I had the gall to actually go through with it. This wasn’t the first time I would have rather just sat on the bench as the game’s final minutes ticked away instead of actually playing a little bit. But even when I didn’t feel like playing, I always responded with an enthusiastic “Yep!” and peeled off my warm-ups as I darted off the bench. I don’t know whether the diarrhea had screwed with my brain or the fact that I was a senior made me feel a false sense of power, but something came over me and told me that now was the time to pull out my brass balls for all the world to see. Now was the time
to finally tell Coach Matta I wanted to stay on the bench. There was no turning back now.

Naturally, Coach Matta was taken aback by my response. He replied, “You’re good? You don’t want to play?”

Unsure of whether or not he was pissed, I added a little more detail. “Yeah, I’m good right here. I had stomach trouble all day, and my butthole is on fire right now because of it. I just really don’t feel like running around out there with a fiery butthole, you know?”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“I’m dead serious, Coach. We’re playing the same team tomorrow night, so why don’t we just wait until then for me to play?”

He shook his head, let out a laugh, and returned to the other end of the bench. The next night I played three minutes and scored three points in our rematch against Windsor, and the incident was never spoken of again.

And just like that, I made walk-on history. Not only did I tell my head coach I wasn’t going to go into the game because I didn’t feel like it, but I also didn’t get reprimanded in the slightest. I had already established myself as a bit of a pioneer in the walk-on community because of the blog I had started writing a year earlier, but in that moment I instantly became a walk-on revolutionary. I had just disregarded the unwritten rules for walk-ons and done something so inconceivably foolish that no one had ever even attempted it before me. But I didn’t just attempt the impossible—I conquered it, and in the process set a new precedent for all walk-ons who were to follow me.

Yes, August 28, 2009, certainly ended up being anything but a typical day. But that’s probably because I was anything but a typical college basketball walk-on.

My name is Mark Titus, and this is my story.

PART ONE

People who have the least to do with the success of a team often have the most to say about it
.

—Larry Bird
When the Game Was Ours (2009)

ONE

A
nybody who has ever been a walk-on for a Division I football or basketball team will tell you that being likened to Rudy at least once during a four-year career is pretty much an inevitability. The general public hears the term “walk-on” and immediately thinks that anyone who couldn’t earn a scholarship must have been told his entire life that he wasn’t good enough, before he relentlessly annoyed coaches for a spot on the team and got life-changing advice from what has to be the wisest field maintenance guy to ever live.

Sadly, this image of a short, white walk-on caring more about the success of the team than all of his teammates combined is reinforced every March, when the guys wearing all their warm-ups on the end of the bench react to routine plays in the NCAA Tournament like tween girls at a Bieber concert. These douchers ruin it for the rest of us, as they cement a stereotype for all walk-ons that forever perpetuates the Rudy comparison. Well, you’re never going to believe this, but not all walk-ons actually fit this description. I know, I know. It’s hard to wrap your mind around the fact
that there are sometimes exceptions to stereotypes, but you’re just going to have to trust me with this one.

I was fully aware of the walk-on stereotype when I started my career at Ohio State, which is why I promised myself that I would do everything in my power to be an exception. Don’t get me wrong, I think
Rudy
is full of all sorts of inspiration and is the second-best sports movie ever made. (I’m from Indiana and played basketball—I’ll let you guess what I think the best sports movie of all time is.) But I’ve found that very few people make a Rudy comparison in a complimentary way. Instead, they seem to be saying, “I think it’s adorable how you try really hard even though you suck balls and there’s no way you’ll ever get a chance to play.” This is why, from day one, I tried to distance myself from the Rudy comparison by pulling pranks on superstar teammates, routinely falling asleep during film sessions, and basically spending every day with the team trying to figure out exactly how much I could get away with. And as it turned out, I could get away with a lot.

Whenever I reminisce with my friends and family about my four years of being a dickhead at Ohio State, they always seem to ask how exactly I was capable of getting away with some of the things I did. (Don’t worry, we’ll cover all of my shenanigans later.) After all, I was the bottom-feeder on the team who was supposed to just keep his mouth shut and stand on the sideline during practice until a coach told me to step in for a drill and essentially get sodomized in my role as human punching bag. You’d think that it would only take one screwup on my part for Coach Matta to send my ass packing, but instead he seemed to embrace me as the comedic relief for the team.

In the history of the walk-on–head coach relationship, this was unprecedented. Never had someone in my position been given the freedom I was given, which is why I felt a great responsibility to use this privilege to my advantage. Which brings us back to the original question: how did I go from being a math major basketball manager who knew only three people on campus to one of the loudest voices in the locker room of the number-one-ranked college
basketball team in less than a month? The answer to that lies deeply buried in a story about drugs, prostitution, love, betrayal, organized crime in the 1920s, and one man’s pursuit of the American Dream.

And by that I mean that the answer has nothing to do with any of those things. Sorry if I got your hopes up.

TWO

I
don’t want to brag or anything, but I honestly can’t remember getting my first pubes. You might be confused as to how this could possibly be bragging, which is why I should also mention that I vividly remember third grade. Now, I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but it seems like since I can remember third grade but I can’t remember getting pubes, I must have started puberty before third grade. In other words, I had at least a two-year head start on the rest of my classmates in the race to become the guy all the ladies wanted to tongue-kiss under the bleachers at the varsity football games.

I towered over all my friends, and I was even taller than most of my brother’s friends, despite them being three years older than me. In fact, I was so much bigger than other kids my age that I had to get a special desk made for me in elementary school because I couldn’t fit in the regular desks. Seriously. I was basically just like Robin Williams in
Jack
, only I wasn’t completely covered with hair, and instead of being socially awkward about my size I dunked on fools on the seven-foot rims during recess. (Also, I wouldn’t have
completely blown the chance to get it on with Fran Drescher like Jack did, but that’s a discussion we’ll have to save for another time.)

My size made me a natural fit for basketball, and I quickly fell in love with the game. Since my dad was the athletic director at a local high school when I was growing up, I always had access to a gym and would often stay for hours after the high school games on Friday and Saturday nights to shoot around. Sure this mostly consisted of me throwing up half-court shots and trying to drop-kick the ball in from the top row of the stands, but that’s not the point. The point is that I sacrificed my Friday nights and therefore never got the chance to get a pants tent from watching Topanga during
TGIF
, all because I wanted to get in the gym, work on my game, and try to get better so I could make it to the NBA someday. Besides, those half-courters and shots from the bleachers proved to be useful years later when I made “Mr. Rainmaker,” my critically acclaimed YouTube video.

All this “practice” also paid off in the short term, as I instantly became a beast in the local rec league. But after a few years of playing in a league with just kids from my town, I ended up quitting because (a) the refs were dads of other kids in the league, which is to say they secretly despised me for destroying their sons and took out their frustration by calling criminally unfair fouls on me, and (b) our league had a limit on the number of points one person could score in a game. That’s right—the league punished kids for being talented, which is the most ass-backwards philosophy I’ve ever heard of. What kind of Communist thought process was behind this decision to deter success in the interest of fairness? Last time I checked, this is America. And in America it’s not only encouraged to beat up on the little guys to get ahead in life—it’s necessary. Anyway, just so we’re clear, I’m blaming my lack of an NBA career on the cheesedicks in charge of my youth rec league. They put handcuffs on me at an early age, and I never was able to break free from them.

I reached my boiling point with the rec league when I blocked the shot of some dweeb who wore shirts with wizards and dragons
on them and the refs called me for yet another bogus foul, only because I was a foot taller than the other kid. Instead of throwing a tantrum and causing a scene like most kids my age would have done, I waited until the game started again, sat down at half-court, took my shoes off, and cried for my mom in the bleachers to take me home. (Remember, kids: always take the high road.) Sure my outburst was ridiculous, but there was solid reasoning behind my behavior, considering it was obvious to me that the rec league wasn’t challenging me enough and I was in desperate need of better competition. Ya know, competition that didn’t play in jean shorts or keep an inhaler in its back pocket during the game. Thanks to AAU basketball, I more than found what I was looking for.

For those who don’t know, the Amateur Athletic Union oversees tournaments all over the country for amateur athletes in a variety of sports. But in basketball circles, “AAU” is basically just another way of saying “club basketball,” as the fundamental idea behind AAU teams is that they are made up of the best players from several towns and even states, as opposed to teammates coming from just one town. The truth is that AAU governs only a very small fraction of the hundreds of tournaments that players could potentially play in during any given summer, but since it is the foremost organization in amateur sports, its name is synonymous with summer basketball. When I started playing AAU in 1997, it wasn’t nearly as huge as it is now—some kids today would rather play AAU during the summer than play for their school teams—but it was still a good opportunity for me to test my skills against the best. More importantly, it gave me a chance to not feel like an ogre for being the only one on the court with armpit hair.

BOOK: Don't Put Me In, Coach
9.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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